Photograph by Rene Vaile
When Melisa Bester was 16 years old, she had written an EP, left school, and signed a major label record deal. She had national youth broadcaster triple j in the palm of her hand thanks to her single “Old Age”, where she decried “I’m too old for my skin / I’m too aged for my bones”. That same year in 2014, she was on tour with NZ exports Broods and Jarryd James, back when Matt Corby was James’ touring keyboardist. Bester’s mum, in tow for the entire national tour was, as she tells it, “such a rock’n’roll mum”.
Now at 21, the South African-born Australian is better known as E^ST, a moniker inspired by her mother’s maiden name Oosthuysen (“oost” means “east” in Dutch). Seated at the Rolling Stone Australia offices in Sydney, it’s clear her maturity for her age has only grown. In a red oversized jumper and faded black baggy jeans, Bester exudes the kind of effortless cool usually reserved for the youth of LA’s skate culture. At this point, the launch of her debut LP I’M DOING IT is just weeks away and the thought of its release more than two years since its inception has her equal parts nervous and excited.
“It’s probably the most authentic thing that I’ve ever put out,” she says.
Bester is exacting when she speaks of her work. Its adolescent realness makes her the pop singer you put on before a night out, but also the engrossing troubadour who could always say it better than you ever felt it.
Her album I’M DOING IT could easily be two EPs if it wasn’t such a sublime concept record. It shows a maturity redolent of a person who was not only willing to feel every piece of their heart when it broke, but also displayed each piece in front of them, examining the fractures before piecing it back together.
Let me tell you about that maturity. You may have heard about it. On the record’s first single “Talk Deep”, an ode to the rebound, Bester’s voice is weighty, and its groove captures you like a heavy net. On tracks like the ballad “FRESH OUT OF LOVE” and even playful heart-racer “MAYBE IT’S ME” her voice is much like the tingle-inducing instrument she used to wow Australia with her version of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” for triple j.
“I was a very serious kid,” Bester admits of her formative career years. “I took myself really seriously; I wouldn’t say I was a very confident kid either. But you know, I was a performer. I knew how to act like I was really confident in what I was doing.”
It’s any wonder. Bester has been writing songs since she was in pre-school. Her first ever song, “Parmesan”, was written at age five; it consisted of one lyric: “Parmesan”. Fast-forward to now and she’s one of the most in-demand songwriters, having lent her now very much developed songwriting skills to the likes of Alice Ivy, Kwame, and Noah Cyrus.
Although, she hasn’t been doing much co-writing of late, an Australian support tour with Panic! At The Disco in 2018, a new deal with cult label Fueled By Ramen, and a debut album – fuelled by a broken relationship and the journey of self-discovery that followed – will do that to you.
Track six on the record, right before its turning point, was written a week before the break-up. “I’m Not Funny Anymore” wallows in the realisation that the relationship had run the gamut and that this ‘a-ha moment’ was just the start of the end.
Check out E^ST’s I’M DOING IT:
“I think writing that song was the first step in me realising that that relationship had to end,” she says. “Because obviously it’s not good to feel that way when you’re with someone.”
Bester enlisted the help of producer and songwriter Jim Eliot (Ellie Goulding, Kylie Minogue, Halsey) for what she envisioned was a fifth EP. Eliot leant a hand on Bester’s ARIA Gold single “Life Goes On” and also “Blow Job”, a track only a 17-year-old with grand designs for a full-time music career could write. Eliot flew over from Wales where he now lives for a sunny March week in Sydney last year.
“We wrote an EP essentially,” says Bester. “And then I played the EP to a friend who I was staying with in that time. I was like, ‘Yeah cool, I’ve got an EP ready to go. And she was like, ‘Dude, I feel like you’ve got more to say. This sounds like the halfway point in an album’.”
Bester followed her friend’s sage advice and in June last year made the trek to Jim Eliot’s small Wales home base, Hay-on-Wye. She stayed for five weeks, holed up in The Bank studio working Monday to Friday. “I was away from my normal world,” she says. “Away from my friends and family and I could just completely immerse myself in making this album. I’ve never had that approach before.”
I’M DOING IT marks the next frontier in self exploration for E^ST. Fed by a relationship that in turn fed an even bigger desire – the one for self-love and independence – the record sees Bester master her own blend of experimental pop sophistication.
“I sort of reached adulthood where I realised, ‘Wow, okay like you need to take care of yourself a little better. You need to actually have a healthy diet. And you need to make time to see your friends, and you know, have a life outside of your career’, because you can’t put all your worth in one thing.
“[…] I was putting a lot of my importance as a person in my music and you know, and I just learned that there’s a lot more to someone than just what they do.”
Track seven, aptly titled “Turn” marks the record’s turning point to erudition, and the title track “I’M DOING IT”, which closes out the record, has a quiet confidence that reflects Bester’s personality. It was written on her mother’s old yellowed piano in her family’s garage. The two-part melody was first trialled with her 17-year-old sister by her side.
“It’s about realising that you can function really healthily on your own and you aren’t dependent on people. And you’re just doing okay; you’re doing fine.”
Growing up, Melisa Bester loved musical theatre and dance. (She performed a song from Annie at the Dubbo Eisteddfod at the ripe old age of five and won $150 in cash for her trouble). If you look close enough you can see hints of this side in her work. The dramatic flair of “Disappear”, the classic chord progression of “Blow Job”, her video for “Friends”, even in her live presence, where you’ll often find her grooving to choreography brought forward from her imagination.
She’ll tell you straight to your face that she’s still figuring it all out; the music career, her relationships, this thing called adulthood… Maybe that’s why her fans love her so much. She’s a mirror of their own personal navigation. According to Bester though, she’s only recently made sense of it all.
“As a kid there was one type of person that everyone was really drawn to,” she explains. “And that’s the loud, bubbly, you know, extroverted person. I’ve just never been that way, you know. I’m such an introvert, more on the reserved side.
“But when I was a kid, I tried to put so much pressure on myself to be the life of the party and, it exhausted me,” she continues. “I didn’t feel connected to anyone, because I wasn’t being myself.”
It’s at this point where the gravitational pull of E^ST really clicks for me. Here’s an artist who has been through the social-inflicted desire to be someone else and has come out the other side unapologetically themselves. Bester inadvertently teaches us not to idolise or try to emulate her, but to lean right on in to our own real selves.
“There’s all these different types of people in the world for a reason,” she says, smiling. “They all add something wonderful to a situation or a place. I think one of the biggest things I learned was that I’m really cool, in my own way you know.”